One of my all time least favorite topics of conversation is when someone talks about how certain people are objectively unattractive or not beautiful. The idea hurts. I want to believe that every pot has a lid and no one would ever get left behind just because of the happenstance of their birth. I want to believe everyone is attractive because I know attraction is the barrier to entry to feeling loved, having a sense of belonging, and feeling like a valued member of a community.
While I personally can see beauty in everyone, that’s only my experience and I’ve gone through life learning in no uncertain terms that many people feel others are ugly. They don’t want to see a fat person in a revealing swimsuit at the beach. They feel slighted by having to gaze upon someone with severe acne, or a crooked nose or the wrong kind of gapped-tooth smile. I can’t argue with their lived experience or aversion to certain physical features because their word as the person who either is or is not attracted to said ugly person is final. No one has to find anyone else attractive.
I think my own features are just fine. I like them. My physical insecurities have always been so focused on my weight that I think I was just happy not to think of myself as completely disfigured. My weight, I knew, was a big deal of its own. I read something in a Brené Brown book earlier this year that scared the living shit out of me. In Daring Greatly, she says that women in America’s number one fear is being unattractive to men. It’s such a sad, dark thing to fear over all others. Is being ugly really worse than getting cancer? Mugged? Losing all your money? Being sold into sex slavery? But I knew immediately it was true. I could connect the dots between a lot of my most vulnerable, painful moments and the fear that I was fundamentally unlovable (to men).
All those years when I was worried about my weight, I wasn’t just worried about my weight. I was worried about being attractive enough to be loved. I was worried that me having worth was determined by individual men, and by their metrics I would never measure up.
I’ve been trying to climb out of this hole with my body and my self image. I’ve been trying to get back to this place I was when I was a kid and I never thought about what was attractive to men. I loved my body because it was squishy, because my legs could carry me when I was running through the sprinkler in the front yard, with no worries about how my bathing suit looked. I want to be like my 5-year-old nephew who climbs me like a mountain when he wants to be cuddled. He isn’t self-conscious about his weight or his shirt riding up to reveal a fleshy pouch of tummy. He isn’t yet burdened by anyone’s gaze.
This is the indifference about my body I wish to recover. Not to be ignorant of the way I look or to turn away from ever finding pleasure in dressing up for a special occasion, but to focus on myself primarily as a natural object instead of an attraction object. In the eye of the beholder, attraction is whatever that one person cares to say it is. In nature, no object is ugly, and the longer you study it the more beautiful it becomes. The ugliest expanse of land contains wildlife, an ecosystem, a history. It is illuminated by the sunrise and watched over by stars. If you take a painting class, you will learn how many distinct ways one object can appear depending on the light. I want to look at myself through these painter’s eyes, curious rather than judgemental.
When I look at myself, I want to see a collection of colors and shape, beautiful in design and inherently a part of this sublime universe.
This might be the same as the way a lover looks at you, if you have a very good lover, but it is not standard practice in everyday life to be so gentle and grateful with our bodies. I try my best to view myself as a natural object by using a lot of skills and techniques I’ve picked up in my years of eating disorder therapy. I express gratitude for my body. I try to notice what needs my body is communicating to me. I practice mindfulness to learn how to manage my body when I am experiencing emotional pain. I watercolor selfies of myself, so that I can practice seeing myself with painter’s eyes. I take long walks. I refuse to consume content that makes me feel bad about myself (beauty, skincare, wellness, and lifestyle influencers and ads, mostly) and I also don’t participate in conversations where I or others are putting bodies down. I just don’t accept that we’re up for scrutiny anymore.
Do you know that cellulite is an entirely fabricated worry? It isn’t a deformity or something to fix with a cellulite cream, it’s a secondary sex characteristic for women. Cellulite is literally part of the design, not a flaw. We are told our appearances have problems that we need to buy products to fix. But we could just love and appreciate who we already are and what is magical about that.
When I see my skin without foundation, I see texture. I see freckles and lines and pores — all the things you’d expect to see on a human face. I see it as a part of nature so it’s easy to stay in that lens and see myself as I’d see any other animal.
I’ve stopped wearing regular bras. The pulled up shape and mounds of foam have never felt right to me. If I don’t want to spend the next few decades living with fear of my breasts sagging (and therefore becoming unattractive), I want to work to appreciate and accept the shape that they are, right now. I don’t want to drastically change my shape when I leave the house, as if I’m putting on a mask. I don’t want to be uncomfortable to contort myself to a beauty standard I don’t believe in. I mostly wear bralettes and sports bras, which isn’t the norm with large breasts but is what makes me feel content with my body and comfortable in my everyday life.
I want to avoid keeping a makeup or skincare routine. I worked in retail skincare and I’ve been idolizing skincare routines in magazines since I could read. I even grew up to write a few of my own. I have some products I love (Origins Modern Friction and Herbivore Phoenix Oil) but I plan to use them the way an Intuitive Eater uses food — a value neutral personal care object my body needs to run properly. When you are hungry, you should eat. When my skin feels dry, I plan to exfoliate and moisturize. I’ll continue to spray myself down with sunscreen when I leave the house. I’m just not going to go through the religious gestures of canonizing it in a routine, or buy into value-loaded ideas about cleanliness and hygiene and morality. I need to get out now before I start obsessing about aging (another fabricated worry — aging sounds fun. All my idols are old ladies).
I want to start new traditions and clean out all the junk ideas about beauty I’ve picked up over the years. I know it’s privileged to be able to let go of the burden of attraction — I have “good” genes as far as skincare goes and no one in my life is going to punish me for not wearing makeup. But I’ve struggled enough with my appearance that I can relate to eye-rolling someone who “gives up” something they didn’t value much to begin with. Makeup isn’t important to me. This isn’t some noble last stand. Just a few steps in a long, long series of steps towards a self that’s maybe a little bit more confident, happy, and self-actualized.
I’ve seen a lot of good things happen by acting as if what I want to be true is already true. Move the body, and the mind follows. When I act confident, people perceive me as confident. When I set boundaries around the language I’m going to use to talk about bodies and appearances, people generally follow suit. When I act as if there is little I need to do in order to be beautiful, I feel as if that’s the truth. I’m not convinced leaning out of working on my appearance is the right things to do for everyone or forever. There is a good Haitian proverb that applies to doing the work of self-discovery: “beyond mountains, there are more mountains”. I don’t know what comes next, but I know the work (whatever it is) is never-ending. This is what feels like the next right thing.